Mon | Sep 28, 2020

God understands Patois

Published:Thursday | September 29, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Devon Dick

On Sunday, Jo-Ann Richards, former missionary to West Africa and the Americas, proclaimed at the Boulevard Baptist Church, on the observance of Mission Sunday, that God understands Patois. Apparently, God speaks even in Patois. She read a passage of the Bible in Patois, spoke at times in Patois and sang in Patois. This is very important to her in the quest for the evangelisation of Jamaica.

Richards related a visit to a USA centre for world missions which had Jamaica listed, not as a Christian country, not as well evangelised but as an underevangelised place. This was a shocker to many, when popular folklore has it that Jamaica has the most churches per square mile. How could anyone claim that Jamaica is under-evangelised? It is because the criterion used is based on the availability of the Bible in the language of the people. And in that context, Jamaica has been found wanting.

The mother tongue of the majority is Patois, but most versions of the Bible are in English. Richards claimed that most Jamaicans think in Patois but it would be on the rare occasion that there would be a reading in Patois in a church. Even at Miss Lou's funeral, the service was in English! And she was an advocate for giving Patois respectability.

Patois is taking Great Britain by storm and the youths of England understand and use Patois. It is known that many Japanese who do not speak English understand the Patois in the reggae music. But so often Patois is ignored in church save and except when it is evangelistic time, or during open-air meetings.

This disregard for Patois started in colonial times. Part of the colonising strategy is to impose language, religion and values on the conquered. K.D. Smith, in a letter to the editor on August 13, requested: "It would be great if Pastor Dick followed up with an analytical article about Eurocentrism and its influence on Christianity in Jamaica."

Eurocentrism in Christianity has led to us having mainly English hymns being sung, rarely the Negro spirituals and not many songs in Patois. It has led to English being the major means of communication, and oftentimes the images and illustrations are European or North American. In my book, The Cross and Machete, it states that the Native Baptists fought for the use of Patois in the Church and warned of the emphasis on classical education and English pronunciation.

Unknown tongue

The Native Baptists were not against the use of scholarship, except when its display became like an unknown tongue to the congregants. They believed it was futile for a preacher to speak in a language that the congregation did not know or understand. The Native Baptists defended the use of simple speech, which was not 'clothed in elegant language' and diction. They insisted on 'plain preaching'.

In the 1840s, Robert Graham, 'a free man of colour', came under the tutelage of Joshua Tinson, English Baptist missionary at Hanover Street, Kingston, and Graham insisted on plain speaking. Tinson had wished to "instruct him in pronunciation and English grammar", but Graham refused because he "believed Mr Tinson's way of pronouncing words was the way in England" and he "was sure his method was the Jamaica method, and the way best understood by the people".

He was correct, as later when Englishmen Thomas Harvey and William Brewin visited Jamaica in 1866, they concluded, "Much of the literature which is so attractive to our population at home is neither interesting nor very intelligible to the people of Jamaica ... the topics, the allusions, the local colouring, are unfamiliar."

Since God understands Patois, and the majority of people understand and speak in Patois, it is time the church services reflect that reality.

Devon Dick is an author and pastor of Boulevard Baptist Church. Email feedback to